10 Types of Justice

types of justice and definition, explained below

Justice refers to fairness based on a moral, political, or ideological framework. But because there are different ways of thinking about fairness and how to achieve it, there emerge many different approaches to justice.

While some people see justice as being achieved through punishment, others think justice is about repayment for damages. Here, we already see different types of justice emerging, form redistributive justice through to restorative and corrective justice.

Still further, we can dissect justice based on different ways in which damages occurs, such as environmental justice which reflect the need for justice for people whose environments have been damage, or economic justice for people who have been economically harmed by others.

Below are ten different forms of justice which demonstrate the diversity of ways we can work toward fairness in society.

Types of Justice

1. Retributive Justice

Retributive justice is based on the term retribution, meaning to seek punishment or vengence.

The point of retributive justice is not to right wrongs, seek correction of a person’s behaviors or attitudes, or redistribute resources in the interests of fairnes.

Rather, the point is to punish someone for their wrongs – period.

You might seek this type of justice if you’re feeling bitter, want to see someone get their “just deserts,” or believe in a black-and-white reward-and-punish moral framework.

Generally, retributive justice is oriented toward differentiating between crimes in a hierarchy of severity, and ascribing punishments proportionate to the gravity of the crime.

While the primary purpose of retributive justice is vengeance (sociologists will call vengeance its manifest function), the severity of punishment often has the positive externality of deterring future criminal behavior – which is sociologically its latent function (Duff, 2018).

However, critics argue that retributive justice can lead to an endless cycle of violence because people will want to ‘take an eye for an eye’ or ‘engage in tit-for-tat’, leading to constant retribution between two groups, each of which feels maligned. This does not contribute to social harmony or reconciliation (Dolinko, 2018).

2. Distributive Justice

Distributive justice is focused on achieving equitable allocation of assets, resources, privileges, and powers within a society.

The focus of this theory of justice is on achieving relatively equal degrees of power – as defined by an individual’s combined assets and social status – across a social group.

Such an approach involves ensuring nobody has an outrageous amount of wealth or power, as anyone who amasses such wealth and power will have it removed from them by society (Lamont & Favor, 2017).

Distributive justice has roots in social contract theory, with philosophers like John Rawls arguing that a just society is one where the distribution of resources aims to benefit the least advantaged members (Rawls, 1971), such as those outlined by Forsyth (2006) and explored below:

  • Equality: All people get the same as all others, regardless of their degree of input, such as when a restaurant serve earns the same as a doctor. While this view is associated with pure communism, it also happens to be closely tied to biblical teachings about the kingdom of god and the importance of conversion late in life, as with the below analogy provided in Matthew 20:1-16.

Matthew 20:1-16 When those hired about five o’clock [in the evening] came, each received a full day’s pay. And when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more. But each one also received the standard wage. When they received it, they began to complain against the landowner, saying, “These last fellows worked one hour, and you have made them equal to us who bore the hardship and burning heat of the day. And the landowner replied to one of them, “Friend, I am not treating you unfairly. Didn’t you agree with me to work for the standard wage? Take what is yours and go. I want to give this last man the same as I gave to you.

  • Equity: Outcomes should be based exatly upon inputs. For example, a person who works for half a day gets a half day’s pay, and a person who works for a full day gets a full day’s pay. One might associate this idea with labor unions who argue that CEOs are overpaid for their efforts, and laborers underpaid for theirs. Such unions seek more equitable outcomes in the workplace (see: equity vs equality).
  • Power: People in positions of authority, status, or power are seen as more deserving than those with less power. For example, in a plutocracy, the people in power in the society amass all the wealth.
  • Need: Resources are distributed not based upon ability to contribute to society, but upon how much you need. This underpins social ideas such as the welfare state, where people with disabilities receive extra disability benefits to cover their medical needs.
  • Responsibility: This approach to distributive justice is summed up by the spiderman quote ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. Those who have the greatest wealth and power should contribute more than those who are in need. Commonly, this occurs through progressive taxation policies.
  • Entitlement norm: This norm suggests that individuals are entitled to a certain level of resources or benefits based on their legal or moral rights, regardless of other factors such as need or contribution. An example of this is the concept of the universal basic income.
  • Utilitarian norm: This norm suggests that resources or benefits should be distributed in a way that maximizes overall social welfare or happiness, rather than focusing on individual fairness or equality.

The greatest downside of distributive justice is that it often curtails individual freedom and, in some models, the concept of meritocracy.

3. Restorative Justice

Restorative justice has its focus on repairing past wrongs. A hot-button example of this is the idea of paying reparations to the descendants of slaves for the intergenerational poverty and disadvantage it caused.

In criminal justice, a restorative approach involves a long process that involves the victim, the offender, and often the community, in coming to an agreement on how the offender should make up their crimes to the victim and society.

The key focus is on restoring social relationships and social harmony by repaying debts (monetary or otherwise) and therefore addressing the underlying behavior and reversing its consequences (Zehr & Gohar, 2015).

Common forms of restorative justice practices include:

  • Victim-offender mediation
  • Family group conferencing
  • Healing circles, and 
  • Community reparations.

Generally, each form has common features, such as a space for giving the victims a platform to express their feelings (a process known as ‘reconciliation’, especially in Canada and Australia in regards to Indigenous affairs). This reconciliation platform allows victims to express the impact of the offense on their lives, and participate in the process of finding a resolution (Latimer, Dowden, & Muise, 2005).

The effectiveness of a restorative justice approach may depend on the willingness and readiness of both the offender and the victim to engage in the process.

4. Procedural Justice

Procedural justice is an approach to justice that emphasizes that a fair and unbiased procedure must be followed when serving justice to perpetrators.

The point of procedural justice is to ensure all members of a society feel as if everyone gets a fair trial, and that their crimes or wrongdoings are proven in an unbiased assessment of the court or peers (Tyler, 2006).

Key elements of procedural justice include:

  • Having your day in court: Ensuring a defendant has their day in court to plead their innocence.
  • Neutrality: A court is not interefered with in its decision, decisions are made without bias or agenda, and the court is independent of other arms of government or powerful institutions.
  • Trustworthiness: The authorities are completely transparent and follow clearly-set guidelines and procedures in order to ensure everyone is treated in the same way (Tyler & Huo, 2002).

Procedural justice is primarily thought of in terms of the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ court system of a fairly functioning democratic system with an independent judiciary.

However, it may also be seen in organizational behavior, such as in the process where a person is dismissed from their job for misbehavior after a clear, neutral, and trustworthy court appearance.

5. Social Justice

Social justice combines the theories of both procedural justice and distributive justice, and refers to the creation of a society where equality and fairness are established.

Of course, the difficulty in this definition is that both ‘equality’ and ‘fairness’ are subjective terms. Often, it depends on a person’s bias toward individual liberty (e.g. an individual’s freedom to amass wealth and protect themselves, and freedom from excessive government intervention in their lives) or collectivism (e.g. the responsibility of an individual to contribute taxes for a social system which provides a ladder for others to achieve social mobility).

Depending on a person’s definition, social justice may influence whether healthcare, housing, and a minimum wage are rights or privileges in contemporary societies.

Generally, social justice will also pertain to the weeding-out of discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and other factors (Bell, 2016). This may involve the dismantling of barriers and structures that lead to inequality and creating societal conditions where everyone has equal access to opportunities and resources (equality of opportunity).

6. Environmental Justice

Environmental justice has two key ideas. First, it emphasizes that all people equally have the right to a safe and clean environment (Bullard & Wright, 2009). Second, it holds that some people are inequitably affected by environmental degradation than others (Schlosberg, 2013). 

From these premises, it advocates for a position where the biggest polluters have a greater responsibility to protect those who are most vulnerable to negative externalities of pollution.

Proceeding from this position, environmental justice advocates could argue from a range of justice perspectives – including enforcing a form of carbon tax (distributive justice), allowing those who are affected by others’ pollution to sue for reparations (restorative justice), or even punishing polluters such as ticketnig people who throw trash into waterways (punitive justice).

The concept of environmental justice in academic research also often observes that environmental hazards, such as waste disposal sites, polluting industries, and other sources of environmental degradation, are often disproportionately located in marginalized communities, leading to compounding and intergenerational socio-economic impacts (Mohai, Pellow, & Roberts, 2009).

7. Economic Justice

Economic justice is about the fair distribution of society’s economic resources, and tends to reflect a perspective that sits anywhere on the left side of the political spectrum from Marxist to center-left progressive.

The theory of economic justice posits that every individual must possess an equal opportunity to acquire the basic necessities of life, irrespective of their social, economic, or political status (Rawls, 1971).

Economic justice incorporates principles of distributive justice, requiring fair allocation of resources and opportunities, and of procedural justice, demanding that economic policies and institutions operate fairly and transparently.

It advocates for equal opportunities for all to participate in, contribute to, and benefit from the economic system (Sen, 2009).

8. Criminal Justice

Criminal justice refers to the system of practices and institutions of governments directed at upholding social control, deterring and mitigating crime, or sanctioning those who violate laws with criminal penalties and rehabilitation efforts.

The criminal justice system is typically divided into three main parts: law enforcement agencies (like the police), courts, and corrections (like prisons and probation) (Clear, Reisig, & Cole, 2018).

The primary goal of the criminal justice system is to maintain social order and protect citizens by deterring crime and punishing offenders. It also aims to rehabilitate offenders and reintegrate them into society as law-abiding citizens.

The system operates on principles of fairness and justice. Its goal is to ensure that criminal procedures and laws are applied equitably and impartially (see also: procedural justice), protecting individuals’ rights against arbitrary and abusive uses of government power (Tyler, 2006).

However, the criminal justice system’s effectiveness and fairness are often topics of debate, especially in terms of the dangers of mass incarceration (especially of marginalized communities without access to specialist lawyers) and wrongful conviction (Alexander, 2012).

9. Corrective Justice

Corrective justice is a principle of fairness that deals with the rectification of wrongs done to individuals.

In this context, a wrong is understood to be an action that unfairly causes harm or infringes upon the rights of others. When such a wrong occurs, corrective justice demands that the wrongdoer make right the harm that has been done. This is typically achieved through restitution or compensation both to the individual, such as a court-mandated payment (Weinrib, 2012).

Corrective justice comes into play in legal disputes between private parties, such as tort lawsuits where one party seeks compensation for damages caused by another. The idea behind corrective justice is not merely to compensate the victim but to restore the moral balance by obliging the wrongdoer to rectify the harm (Perry, 2001).

One concern in the corrective justice model is how to quantify non-material or intangible harms done to a person. Some courts of law, for example, will try to assess the quantifiable monetary value of loss of reputation or loss of potential revenue.

10. Global Justice

Global justice refers to the justice at an international level. It explores the fair treatment of individuals regardless of their nationality or the nation they belong to.

Such an approach emphasizes that all people, regardless of where they are from or reside, should have the same basic rights, protections, and opportunities (Brock & Brighouse, 2005).

Global justice tends to be delivered on the international arena, such as in the UN or courts in Hague, although it may also be achieved through bilateral treaties allowing countries to participate in one another’s legal proceedings, or, through extrajudicial laws for crimes such as crimes against humanity.

One other aspect of global justice is that wealthier nations have a responsibility to help those in poorer countries who are suffering due to poverty or natural disasters, and, (referring back to environmental justice) that highly industrialized nations take a greater burden of climate change mitigation (Pogge, 2002).

However, the implementation of global justice is complex, especially because it tends to challenge the sovereignty of nations and involve geopolitical maneuvering.


Justice is a diverse concept that can be dissected in a variety of ways. By contemplating the various types of justice, we can delve into the various philosophical approaches that can exist toward how to create a fair world, and recognize that each philosophy, ideology, and worldview has its own strengths and weaknesses – and the implementation of each has profound effects on people’s lives.


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Schlosberg, D. (2013). Theorising environmental justice: the expanding sphere of a discourse. Environmental Politics, 22(1), 37-55.

Sen, A. (2009). The Idea of Justice. New Jersey: Harvard University Press.

Tyler, T. R. (2006). Why People Obey the Law. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Tyler, T. R., & Huo, Y. J. (2002). Trust in the law: Encouraging public cooperation with the police and courts. London: Russell Sage Foundation.

Weinrib, E. J. (2012). Corrective Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Zehr, H., & Gohar, A. (2015). The little book of restorative justice: revised and updated. Los Angeles: Good Books.

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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